Sign O’ The Times.

We know Tesla want to go to space.

We know Unilever want children to grow up happy and healthy.

We know Nike want Muslim women to be able to work out however they want to.

We know AirBnB believe in diversity and equality.

All these things we know, and we care about.

And importantly, we see.

Not read. Not investigate on corporate websites that feature manifestos. Not through reading brand purpose documents. Not even through words in an ad.

We see who organisations are by the symbols they present us.

Unilever’s children looking to an impossibly clear (pollution-free) sky.

AirBnB’s United Colours of Benetton faces (how ahead of the curve were Benetton, on reflection?).

Facebook’s thumbs up.

Nike’s hijab.

Take away the words and the images speak volumes on their own. The AirBnB image has been shared the world over, taking over the logo as the easy, instant expression of who they are.

Brands know they have to respond to cultural change to sell things, using semiotics, or ethnography, or qual, or quant. But rarely do they turn this analysis on themselves, their business, their employees. To really, succinctly pin down who they are, and what they want in a way that consumers can see, respond to, and feel an affinity with.

Of course this feels important in the current European and North American political climate. But it’s not just about choosing a side on one side or other of an issue.

We’re starting to see an imperative for corporate reflection, for all businesses. To be honest about who they are, what they want, the driving force behind their choices, the reason their employees stay with them, and how to display that to the world in one image, word, sound, colour, smell. To be real in an era of fake.

This can be difficult, as in the process of pulling apart your own soul you find things you don’t want people to see. The instinct is to cover it up, to beat others in the trends race, to progress, run forward, innovate for innovation’s sake and communicate the hot new thing better than everyone else. To gild shit with glitter and pull the pretty rug over the stain in the carpet. But skeletons come out of the closet, the rug gets pulled back, and brands have to scurry to respond in a way that meets external expectations.

It’s time to be honest with ourselves. To see ourselves from every angle and a) accept ourselves, and b) make informed decisions about what we want to do in the world.

We can do this by applying semiotics to every part of our business – not just our advertising, but our culture, buildings, employees, interactions, partnerships, where we show up online, offline, in conversation. Finding the symbols that most strongly represent us, and those that people recognize (internally and externally), beyond what we want them to recognize.

Only by doing this can we really show people who we are, and what we want, so they can accept us with open arms, stained carpet and all.

Rebecca Collins is a semiotician and a friend of Monticello.

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